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Focus International Voices

Roma: A Serious Contender For The Oscar With A Setback

Miguel Jimenez February 20, 2019

Not long after its release, people distinguished Alfonso Cuaron’s movie Roma as a masterpiece. All over social media, people raved about the movie and encouraged others to watch and support it. Contrary to the stereotypical image of my culture in the American mainstream media, Roma conveyed a nuanced perspective on Mexican culture and history through the director’s childhood lens. Even my American professor, aware of my Mexican nationality, approached me once after class to express how much he enjoyed the movie. Cuaron’s film had essentially become an international phenomenon.

At first, I shared that enthusiasm. I was certain that Roma would be the masterpiece that everyone was talking about, especially because I knew that the film’s cast, production, and subject matter were entirely Mexican. As I went home for Christmas I watched this special movie with my parents. Yet Roma sadly fell short of my expectations. [SPOILER ALERT]

The film depicts the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic worker employed by an upper-middle class family who lived in the neighborhood after which the film gets its name. Through Cleo’s life experiences, the Mexico’s class struggle and political unrest of the 1970s are woven with a family’s struggle to keep their head above water. Cuaron did a fine job bringing such a historical moment from the Mexican past to life. For instance, the choice of making the film black and white makes the audience feel as if it were traveling back in time, which is what Cuaron ultimately did in Roma since he got the inspiration from his family’s maid.

The director put a lot of effort in creating a faithful 1970s ambiance. He shot scenes in the same neighborhood where he was growing up and even attempted to rebuild his childhood home with the same furniture and layout from his past. Ultimately, because of Cuaron’s personal connection with the story, the audience understands Roma almost as a nostalgic reverie. I feel that this artistic approach of depicting a past reality contributes to its phenomenal popularity. While watching it, I often heard my grandmother exclaim how truthfully the movie reflected some aspect of life in the 1970s, and I shared her admiration of Cuaron’s attention to detail.    

PC: Netflix

Yet my problem with the movie is that it lacks an empathetic storyline. Ultimately, I felt unable to share Cleo’s feelings of frustration and disappointment. Roma did paint a clearer picture in my head of the implications due to her social status in Mexico (a harsh reality that I feel captured foreigners’ attention), but I was rarely able to put myself in Cleo’s shoes and be part of the movie.

On the contrary, the film made me feel sorry for her, forcing me to console her without truly understanding what Cleo is going through. The lack of meaningful and revealing dialogue does not help with cultivating the connection with the characters as the director prefers to capture every day conversations and sounds.

Cuaron’s artistic approach inadvertently distracted me from any symbolism or other narrative strategy that would better illustrate Cleo’s struggles. It is possible though that the director wished us to feel somewhat detached to her to reveal how Mexican society overlooks the well-being of its domestic workers.

Ultimately, many people glossed over the lack of a storyline and applauded the messages that the movie portrayed so skillfully. Through the relationship between Cleo’s character and her employer, Sofia (Cuaron’s fictional mother played by Marina de Tavira), the film depicts the harsh conditions of the working class in Mexico and the role of women in society.

On one hand, Cleo shares the story of many young Amerindian women in Mexico, resorted to work in the city as domestic servants and faced discrimination and abuse because of their skin color, class, and gender. Sofia character represents strength by overcoming her husband’s affairs and abandonment.

While Cleo’s character shares the same rejection, the similarity ends there. In Cleo we see the pains of surviving trauma and death, culminating in her final struggle to protect Sofia’s children, the ones she cares for and loves unconditionally. The world was touched by the two characters’ struggles and misfortunes, but I find such a reaction somewhat hypocritical.

PC: Netflix

In Mexico alone, stories like theirs are common, and the reality of many housemaids and mothers is often worse than what we see in Roma. I do appreciate Cuaron’s critique of Mexican society, but I question whether Mexicans truly share the director’s concern for Mexico. If they were truly concerned about the apparent detrimental state of racial, class, and gender relations in Mexico, people should look into their lives and not a movie to realize that society is acting wrong.

Perhaps the sensationalism results not from Roma’s messages, but from the film itself. Since it was released on Netflix, critics and the media instantly foreshadowed its nomination to the Oscar, which gave Mexican people the hope of seeing Cuaron bring cinema’s most revered award home, especially since the production was 100 percent Mexican.

For years now, the country anxiously waits for an Oscar. Movies such as Birdman and The Shape of Water, though directed by Mexican filmmakers, do not talk about Mexico and much of their production was foreign. The eleven national movies that reached the nomination stage didn’t win the Oscar, which has frustrated the Mexican public who hopes to see the Academy give Roma at least one of ten possible awards.

I honestly do not doubt that the movie will earn an Oscar, although I do not find Cuaron’s work to be exceptional. Roma became popular in the United States not so much because of the depiction of a different time and place, but rather because of support for international movies. Because of President Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric, a large portion of the American public, including Hollywood, has sought to make reparations to the international and minority communities. I feel that this trend may have persuaded the Academy into nominating movies whose subject matter is on minorities.

In the end, Roma is a movie that seeks to portray a crucial era in Mexican history while providing a social critique of modern Mexican society. However, Cuaron achieves these goals at the expense of a relatable storyline. To me, a good movie is one in which the storyline is the main strategy that the director uses to convey a message. I feel Cuaron’s objectives were to bring his past to life and to convey a message, one that ignores the storyline.

Still, I am happy to see that Mexican talents have been acknowledged abroad. I am especially looking forward to see whether Yalitza Aparicio wins the Oscar. If so she would be the first Mexican woman of  Amerindian background to win. My faith to see Mexico take the Oscar home is definitely firm, but my hope that the Academy holds an impartial decision is even stronger.